RALEIGH, N.C. - The ACC Atlantic Division title race is officially open again thanks to a two-touchdown comeback and a dramatic, last-minute fumble.
Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder fumbled the ball away inside of NC State's 10-yard line with 49 seconds left, ending any chance for what would have been a winning touchdown. The turnover also sealed NC State's 28-24 upset of the No. 15 Seminoles in a nationally-televised matchup on a Thursday night at a sold-out Carter-Finley Stadium (56,807 fans).
It was the first conference loss for FSU (6-2, 4-1 ACC) and while the Seminoles, which had a five-game winning streak snapped, still own the lead in the Atlantic, they are now one of three teams in the division with one league loss, joining the Wolfpack (6-2, 3-1), who erased a 21-7 halftime deficit, and Maryland (5-2, 2-1).
The Seminoles will host North Carolina (4-3, 2-2) next Saturday. They travel to Maryland on Nov. 20.
"If we had won this one we would have been in better position, but we're all tied with one loss," FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher said. "We got to play a North Carolina team now and you can't let NC State beat you twice. We've got to fix some of the sloppiness we had in the first half."
Fixing how to move the ball on a two-minute drill isn't the problem. Down 28-24 with 2:33 left in the fourth quarter, FSU took over on its own 29. Nine plays later they were at the 4-yard line with 54 seconds and three timeouts left. Fisher then used one of those timeouts and called a play-action pass, but while faking a handoff to Ty Jones, Ponder lost his grip on the ball. It hit the turf and NC State's Nate Irving narrowly beat him to it.
"I extended the ball too far and was trying to keep my eyes downfield and (the ball) just hit the hip of the tailback," said Ponder, who had an earlier fumble that NC State turned into a touchdown. "I fumbled the ball. It was my fault. We had the game won and I didn't finish."
NC State then used three running plays to run out the clock and seal its biggest win of coach Tom O'Brien's four-year tenure.
It was O'Brien's gutsy fourth down call that gave the Wolfpack the lead for good. On a 4th-and-goal from the FSU 1, NC State's Russell Wilson rolled to his right on a play-action pass and lofted a scoring pass to a wide-open George Bryan in the back of the end zone that put the Wolfpack up 28-24 with 2:40 left.
O'Brien had initially sent out the kicking team after three straight runs from the FSU 1 were stuffed short of the goal line. But, he called a timeout and sent the offense back out instead.
"We knew they was going for it we just that they were going to run it again," said FSU cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who had a interception in the fourth quarter. "Instead they threw it to the back of the end zone."
FSU looked on its way to putting the game away after scoring 21 unanswered points - Ponder had two touchdown runs and a 11-yard touchdown pass to Willie Haulstead in the second quarter - to go ahead 21-7.
However, in a strange twist, NC State looked like the team with the momentum coming out of halftime. The Wolfpack got the ball first in the second half and marched 68 yards on 13 plays, capping the drive with Wilson's 10-yard touchdown run.
On the ensuing drive, Ponder was hit while trying to make a throw and NC State gobbled up the fumble at the FSU 22. Fisher challenged the play, but it was not overturned.
Three plays later, Wilson scrambled out of the pocket and raced into mounds of open space into the middle of the field and then dove into the end zone for a 20-yard touchdown run that tied the game at 21-21. It was Wilson's third touchdown run of the game as his 1-yard TD plunge on NC State's initial drive put the Wolfpack up 7-0.
Wilson came into the game averaging 303 passing yards a game and finished with 178. But, Wilson consistently made big runs or scrambled free to make key throws, including a 29-yard completion where he escaped the grasp of a defender and fired a strike to convert a 3rd and 22 in the fourth quarter.
"His feet are what make him so difficult," Rhodes said of Wilson. "He's running around with the ball so much and making the corners come down off the receivers. That's what made it real difficult."
Jones led FSU with 109 yards on just 10 carries and Bert Reed had six catches for 87 yards.
Dustin Hopkins had a 31-yard field goal in his only attempt of the game to put FSU up 24-21 in the fourth quarter. Three of Hopkins' five kickoffs also went for touchbacks.
This was the fourth straight time NC State has hosted FSU for a Thursday night game. The Seminoles are now 2-2 in those contests.
On Sunday the kickoff time for the North Carolina-Florida State game in Tallahassee on Saturday will be released. It will either be at 3:30 or 8.
FSU redshirt freshman Bryan Stork made his first career start at right guard in place of David Spurlock (out due to concussion).
This was the first multi-rushing touchdown game of Ponder's career.
FSU now leads the all-time series against NC State 21-10.